Summary: Aggie goes to work for producer Thomas Ince, but he rejects her first script. Instead of firing her, Ince decides to train her as a comedy writer at a reduced salary, which leads to a successful picture in 1915.
Soon after the incident with Mr. Wolf, I moved from the Hollywood Hotel to the Hollywood Studio Club.
“The Studio Club?” Vi said, frowning. “It’s run by the YWCA. Almost a charity home. That’s no place for Mary Pickford’s writer.”
But, of course I wasn’t with Mary Pickford. I was just a writer out of a job, and the Studio Club rates, $10 a week for room and board, appealed. Nowadays, this institution is an impressive, hotel-like building, and I’m sure it does a great deal of good for girls who are starting their movie careers. But I’m equally sure there couldn’t be as much wild laughter as there was in the old mansion on Gower Street.
There were just 18 of us girls, amongst them Julanne Johnston and Marjorie Daw, both of whom were to become leading ladies to Douglas Fairbanks; Zasu Pitts, who always seemed overburdened with woe and was just as funny telling about it as she was on the screen; and four girls who became leading scenario writers. One of my closest friends was Sarah Y. Mason, who, with her husband Victor Heerman, won an Academy Award for scripting “Little Women.” Sarah and I met a while ago and talked about the old days. We guessed that the combined top weekly income of the old gang would be close to $25,000, and their total earnings well over $2 million. There were some failures, too. As the years passed, three of the girls ended their own lives.
With all of us nibbling at success, money was scarce—when there was any. Wardrobes were community property. The first girl up was the best dressed, the last apt to have nothing to wear, literally. My leopard coat did double duty. Daytimes it would appear in casting offices or producers’ sanctums. Evenings it often left me to go out on dates.
Sometimes a girl would ask a man to have dinner with her at the club. All the rest of us would pitch into the poor male and rend him apart. It was a very self-assured fellow indeed who didn’t rise from the table, red-faced and confused. If a girl managed to attract some director or producer and get him to come to call, he was worked on by all eighteen of us. Once Mack Sennett took a brief interest in one little ingénue and came in his big limousine to take her to dinner. While she powdered her nose upstairs, at least fourteen girls found excuses to parade past Mr. Sennett waiting in the hall, hopeful that they might be chosen for one of his “Bathing Beauties” comedies.
One struggling actress, a bit older than the rest of us, usually walked around on the upper floor naked, to the horror of our housemother. “Miss Nude” was having an amour with a world-famous author. The rest of us didn’t approve. We decided that the poor girl, who wasn’t getting anywhere in pictures, should go to New York to escape this philanderer’s clutches. Since she was broke, the question was how to get her there.
Someone heard that when undertakers sent a corpse to points East they had to have it accompanied by an escort, who, of course, got a free train ticket. We put Miss Nude on the waiting list of every mortician in Hollywood. However, either she wouldn’t give up her writer or her writer wouldn’t give up Miss Nude. She left the Studio Club and moved to what we whispered was “an apartment of sin.” Then, for weeks after, the undertakers would call, asking if there was anyone who cared to “escort an old lady’s remains to Boston” or “a nice young man’s to Buffalo.” I was just about to take one of those grisly trips East myself when my friend Sarah Mason fixed up an appointment for me.
Sarah had worked as a secretary to C. Garner Sullivan, an editor for producer Thomas Ince. Ince had started as a minor actor in New York. He’d once played a bit part in “Home Folks,” a play by Charles T. Dazey (Frank’s father). He’d gotten his start in pictures by means of a subterfuge. Discouraged with the stage, he’d made an appointment with the head of one of the picture companies. For this meeting, he’d borrowed the best wardrobe the The Lambs Club could muster, and also had a star friend lend him a huge diamond ring. During the interview, while Tom Ince was elaborating on his “stage triumphs,” the movie executive couldn’t keep his eyes off the gigantic diamond. Perhaps it hypnotized him. At the end of the session, Ince walked out with a rich contract as actor-director and, in a few years, became one of the all time greats of the picture industry.
I think the basis of Ince’s success was his appreciation of story. He assembled a staff of writers—C. Garner Sullivan, J. G. Hawks, John Lynch, Julien Josephson—that became a legend in the movie business. When you saw an Ince picture, you were sure of seeing a compact, believable, and well-built drama. Also, coming from the stage, Ince knew acting, picking up vaudeville unknowns, stage has-beens, or just plain nobodies and vaulting them to stardom.
Ince was a partner with D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett at Triangle Motion Picture Company in Culver City. The headquarters was a replica of a beautiful white-columned Colonial mansion. As I approached the door, a huge colored man in livery opened it and welcomed me with a sweeping bow. What a studio! I just had to get a job here.
I marched determinedly to Sullivan’s office. “Sully” was a swell guy. His literary subtitles for Ince’s pictures had made history and inspired my own subtitles at Thanhouser Studio. (Editor’s note: See Chapter 8.) But there was no grandness about him. His shy grin put me quickly at ease. Before I knew it, we were discussing J. M. Barrie, whom Sully loved as much as I did. And Barrie was all we did discuss before Sully marched me into Ince’s office, and said, “Here’s a writer I think we ought to have on our staff.”
Tom Ince was a handsome blond man with glinting blue eyes and a friendly Irish smile. However, like some other friendly Irishmen I have known, he was a close man with a buck. When I mentioned the salary Mary Pickford had paid me, he balked.
“That’s out of the question,” he said. “I can’t throw money away like the Pickfords. And how do I know “Daddy Long Legs’ is good? It hasn’t been released yet. At least until I find out what you can do, I can’t pay you more than $150.”After proper hesitation, I accepted the offer. After months without a paycheck, I had to.
My first scenario for Ince turned out horribly. Any writer who says he’s never had a failure is either a self-deceiver or a liar. And this was one of my worst. Based on a story that was all drama and sex intrigue, I really didn’t understand what I was writing. Perhaps I needed the “experience” that “Mr. Wolf” had so kindly offered to supply.
I was glad that Sully was away on his vacation so he wouldn’t have to read it before I put it on Ince’s desk. I figured that I’d have at least a few days’ salary before Ince caught up to me. But I was summoned to his office at noon. With his friendly Irish grin, he said, “You know how bad this is, kid. No use wasting time telling you.” Tears would have come easily, but I was too proud for that. I got up and walked quickly toward the door.
“Hey, come back here,” Ince called. “You’ve muddled the drama, and God knows what your idea of sex is! But you have put in several good human touches. I don’t want to fire you, but I can’t pay you what I would a regular writer. I might keep you on at $50 a week while we try to teach you to be a comedy writer.”
Fifty dollars a week! Why that was even less than I’d taken as my first Thanhouser salary. But, somehow, there was a challenge in Ince’s glinty blue eyes.
“I’ll take it,” I said, angrily. “And show you!”
“Good kid!” said Ince. “You’ll do—maybe.” He handed me some clipped out pages from The Saturday Evening Post. It was a Mary Roberts Rinehart story I’d read and loved. “Everybody says I’m out of my mind to do a soldier picture so soon after the war,” Ince said. “But I’m not going to risk much money on it. Now here’s the way I want the story developed. The plot’s much too thin, so you must build up the drama of the spy stuff.”
I took the pages back to my office. Rereading them, I liked the tenderly humorous story of a soldier’s leave-taking much better than when I’d read it the first time. I thought about those hurried days in New York before Frank had gone overseas. For a while, I played around with spies and dramatic situations, but every time one of the conspirators lurked about, romance and tenderness went out the window. Finally, it was the spies who went out the window. After all, for $50 a week, wasn’t I entitled to write the way I wanted?
Trying to be as fair to Ince as possible, I worked with fury. Exactly eleven days after he’d given me those pages, I put the finished script on his desk. Without delay—for this was the Ince method—he began to read it. I squirmed and fidgeted, certain I was about to be fired again. Then, unexpectedly, Ince laughed. And, a few pages later, laughed again. When he was through with the script, he slammed it down on his desk.
“You little devil!” he said. “You’ve done exactly the opposite of what I told you to do. But I like it.”
So “23 1/2 Hours’ Leave” went into production. Henry King, just starting his career, directed it with the warmth and sensitivity that made him the greatest in the industry. Two unknown youngsters, Douglas MacLean and Doris May had the leads. When the picture was released, they became stars and continued as stars for years.
As for me, as soon as Ince read the script he gave me a raise. Oh, that kindly Irishman! He didn’t put me back on my $150 salary, but, with a magnanimous gesture, said he was “doubling” my pay and gave me $100 a week.
Now that I was “set,” I could afford to hire a horse and go riding with Vi and Shirley again. One Sunday morning, when we were high above Beverly Hills, the San Fernando Valley spreading on one side and Hollywood and Los Angeles on the other, I broke down and told them how I’d been fired by Mary Pickford, and had concealed the shame of my joblessness from them for weeks and weeks.
“Mary Pickford fired you?” said Shirley. “Why, Bernie saw ‘Daddy Long Legs’ at a studio showing and he says it’s swell.”
“Gee whiz!” cried Vi, “You were out of work all that time? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Yes, you poor simp!” said Shirley. “We know everybody in Hollywood. It would have been a cinch to get you a job.”